by Kyle Koso
With the 2020-21 college basketball season starting up, programs will inevitably be affected by disruptions from COVID-19, testing the will and sanity of coaches from now until March Madness (or April, or May …).
For Purdue mens head coach Matt Painter, it’s a more classic obstacle that needs to be scaled — injuries — as the Boilermakers take on Liberty today at the Space Coast Challenge.
Junior guard Eric Hunter Jr. is out with a broken tibia, subtracting a key returner who averaged more than 10 points per game last year, shot a tidy 36 percent from 3-point range and was second on the team in assists. Painter has places to turn for help (Brandon Newman and Jaden Ivey, the latter whose mother is Notre Dame women’s coach Niele Ivey), but as freshmen they cart along questions that still need resolution. Two other players likely to help in games to come, freshmen guard Ethan Morton and sophomore center Emmanual Dowuona, are not 100 percent and may not play at the Space Coast Challenge either.
In fact, veteran presence is a precious commodity as the roster has no seniors at all.
On the positive front, Purdue can counter with 6-foot-10 junior Trevion Williams (11.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game), who was a preseason all-Big Ten selection, with junior Sasha Stefanovic pumping up the offense with his 39 percent shooting from long range. Guiding the Boilermakers through all these variables will require everything Painter can find in his coaching toolbox.
“You have to keep things in perspective, and each guy will be a bit different in terms of where they are emotionally. You’ll have to gauge that. You want guys to be excited about playing, but not so excited they don’t know what they‘re doing,” said Painter, who has seen his team make 11 NCAA Tournaments in his 15 years as head coach. “You want a high level of play, but there are so many factors that go into that. Having the pulse on your guys as the game progresses … like when you play a great team and getting to that first media timeout, when you tell them, ‘you’re OK, you can play in this game.’ The reassurance … for the young guys and really anybody, working through the early mistakes and be able to let those be lessons instead of a pattern.
“I always stress this, that Purdue can’t beat Purdue. Hanging in a game and not doing something that will put you in a bad spot can get you through to a win. There’s a lot of things that can unfold.”
As the Boilermakers settle in, they’ll be looking to improve their shooting numbers from as season ago, when the group shot 42 percent from the field. There were notable highs, like blowout wins over Virginia, Michigan State and Iowa, and some curious lows, like dropping more home games than in the previous four seasons combined.
So it’s no mystery that Purdue has a plan to improve upon its 16-15 finish from a year ago — the question is, which players will end up as the best problem solvers?
“It’s more about what you don’t know. You expect older players to be ready to play and not turn the ball over … you want to give yourself chances,” Painter said. "Playing smart, playing hard, giving the effort and respecting your opponent. I think young players don’t realize sometimes how good players are all over the country, and Liberty is good collectively.
“Our decision making wasn’t great (last season), or it wasn’t where it was before. People say ‘your shooting was down’ — it was down because our execution wasn’t great and our decision making wasn’t great. Fewer turnovers, clean passes where guys can catch and shoot and make plays … playing the game in a smarter sense. That’s something we need to make strides in.”
Williams is a proven load in the front court, and Purdue can go sky-high if it wants thanks to 7-4 freshman Zach Edey.
"We’ve been bringing a lot of energy at practice and trying to stay together as much as possible. You’ll have to bring your own energy, and that’s what we’ve been working on,” Williams said. “We’ll go with what we’ve got and play as hard as we can. As long as everyone plays as hard as they can, we should be fine.
“None of that stuff (preseason accolades) excites me right now and I try to be humble about it. I’ll play my hardest and do what I can on the court to make Purdue win … that’s all that matters. Pretty much everyday there’s something new we are learning, so I’m excited to play and eager to get on the court.”
Painter is looking for a bounce-back season from junior Aaron Wheeler, who shined as a freshman in the postseason but labored to find his shot last year, and is hoping his entire roster understands that no one is expecting perfection this early in a crazy, chaotic time.
“Just be productive and have fun, and don’t get stressed out, as a coach especially. When you make mistakes, put things behind you,” Painter added. “The thing we’ve really tried to emphasize is as long as we’re playing hard and doing what we want them to do, those are OK mistakes.”